Washington - Seventeen nations have reiterated their commitment to help defend South Korea against any attack from its northern neighbor, eliciting an angry response from China.
The countries are members of the U.N. Command (UNC), a multinational military force that maintains the armistice between North and South Korea. If a conflict breaks out on the peninsula, its members are to coordinate the deployment of weapons and troops in support of the South.
Defense ministers and representatives from the 17 countries gathered this week in Seoul at the invitation of the South Korean ministry for a historic meeting.
Several UNC member states have been participating in U.S.-South Korea joint drills but the meeting on Tuesday marked the first time that UNC member states from Africa, Europe, the Middle East, North and South Americas, and Southeast Asia have come together since the UNC was established 70 years ago.
In a joint statement released after the meeting, the representatives declared they will be 'united upon any renewal of hostilities or armed attack on the Korean Peninsula challenging the principles of the United Nations and the security of the Republic of Korea.'
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning criticized the UNC at Tuesday's regular press briefing in Beijing. She said the UNC 'has no legal grounds' and 'stokes confrontation' on the peninsula.
China's President Xi Jinping, right, arrives for the leaders retreat at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco, California, Nov. 17, 2023.
David Maxwell, vice president of the Center for Asia-Pacific Strategy, said Beijing's claim is inaccurate as U.N. Security Council Resolutions 82 to 85, which gave legitimacy for the establishment and operation of the UNC, 'remain in effect' and have 'never been rescinded.'
'China's claim about legality is parroting the North Korean position, which supports the objective of trying to dismantle the U.N. Command in order to drive the U.S. forces off the peninsula and give the North a military and political advantage,' said Maxwell.
'China's long-term objective is to drive U.S. forces off the Asian landmass,' he added.
Before of the UNC meeting, North Korea's foreign ministry issued a statement through its state media KCNA describing the body as an 'illegal war organization fabricated by the U.S.'
Experts said this week's meeting was significant for signaling deterrence against North Korea and bolstering the U.S. defense commitment for Taiwan at a time when Russia, China and North Korea are seeking to change the territorial status quo.
Ralph Cossa, president emeritus of Pacific Forum, a former special assistant to the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command and U.S. Air Force colonel, said, 'UNC is critically important as a deterrent to North Korea, especially if the U.S. is involved in a Taiwan or South China Sea contingency.'
He continued, 'There is a concern that Pyongyang might want to exploit a cross-strait conflict by moving against the South while the U.S. is tied up elsewhere, so it's critically important for the other UNC members to demonstrate they are prepared to fill in any gap.'
The operation of the UNC in South Korea would ensure that the U.S. military could devote its resources to defending Taiwan without weakening deterrence against North Korea, said experts.
U.S. President Joe Biden has been vowing to defend Taiwan using U.S. forces including soldiers if China attacks the self-ruled island that Beijing considers as its own territory.
Chinese President Xi Jinping told Biden at their meeting on Wednesday that force could potentially be used to unify Taiwan, according to a U.S. official cited by Reuters. The two met at a private estate near San Francisco, where the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit was being held.
Resolution 84, adopted in July 1950 after North Korea attacked the South in June of that year, authorized the U.S. to create and lead the UNC to defend South Korea as the first global collective security force.
Xi said in his speech at a welcome dinner in San Francisco on Wednesday that China remains 'firm in safeguarding the international system with the U.N. at its core, the international order underpinned by international law, and the basic norms governing international relations based on the purposes and principles of the U.N. Charter.'
VOA requested comments from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs about whether it believes remarks by Ning and Xi contradict each other but has received no response.